UDAN : Concerns Raised by the Indian Aviation Industry

The final guidelines under the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) as envisaged in the NCAP, which have been named as UDAN (Udey Desh ka Aam Nagrik) are set to be announced today by the Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju. The government believes that its ambitious UDAN will jump-start regional aviation in the country. This seems to be in sync with the IATA’s recent forecast: “In 10 years, the Indian aviation market will be the third largest in the world, overtaking the UK.”

“We are very hopeful of a positive response from the industry but our thinking is that with the scheme, we will in fact be jump-starting regional aviation,” Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha has said. 

He expressed his hope that the scheme would be “quite attractive” for consumers, carriers, small and regional airlines, lessors and other players in the ecosystem.

He said that the purpose of formulation of such a scheme is that regional carriers get the support they need both in terms of reducing their cost as well as in terms of viability gap funding so that they can serve tier-II and tier III cities.

The government had on July 1, 2016 unveiled the draft scheme which fixed all-inclusive fares at Rs 2,500 for one-hour flights in its attempt to make flying affordable for the common man. The complex scheme seeks to connect currently unlinked towns as well as extending viability gap funding (VGF) through a regional connectivity fund. There are 394 unserved and 16 under-served airports.

On one hand the government exudes optimism, while on the other hand, aviation experts have said they are not sure about how much of this projected growth will materialise considering several constraints currently plaguing the Indian aviation industry. They reckon legislative constraint is one major hurdle as far as Regional Air Connectivity is concerned. The established airlines grouping – the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) – who controls over 80% of India’s aviation, has asserted that the government does not have any authority or mandate to impose levy in nature of tax on scheduled flights. It has threatened to initiate legal action against the imposition of levy.

On its part, the government has defended the imposition of levy on scheduled flights from trunk routes to fund the scheme. The Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha has said that the government had a “very extensive” stakeholder’s consultation process prior to the formalisation of the RCS.

“We have already clarified from the ministry. Based on our own discussions with the Law Ministry, we think we can look forward to this kind of arrangement (imposition of levy) within the current legislation,” he said.

Apart from the upcoming legal battle, the country’s aviation industry has aired its various concerns about the regional connectivity scheme. A day ago, the Minister of state for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha had hosted a round table in Delhi where the chief executives of airline companies, aircraft lessors and executives in the maintenance, repair and overhauling of aircraft businesses had been invited. Therein the executives voiced their fears. One serious concern is infra structure related – the non-availability of slots at major airports such as those at metros.

The majority of flights still operate from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata, airports. These metro airports today are running to capacity. Thus, they have very few slots available for each airline. Some of them like Mumbai have stopped allotting fresh slots altogether. The executives stressed that it was important that some slots be made available at the major airports. Slot constraints at the metro airports prevent the linking of smaller airports with the bigger ones. The hub and spoke model, thus, will not work. For effective execution  of the RCS, this is the basic requirement.

The aim of the NCAP has been – “Take flying to the masses.” The scheme entails capping of the fares at an affordable Rs 2,500 for flights of one-hour duration. (Although, one can travel by air for an hour in a scheduled LCC at less than Rs 1800 even today. Search a cheap air fare at this site now !) The government is aware that Rs 2500 does not fully cover the airplane’s operating costs. So, the government has proposed to indemnify the difference through subsidies which will be provided for a period of three years. The scheme is dependent upon VGF. So, the chief objective should be to rationalise the costs of aircraft operation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening because most of the overheads like landing costs, excise on fuel, user development fee, etc. are increasing. The proposed subsidy is very little for a small 10-20 seat air craft. The cost of seat per kilometer, their acquisition cost, is almost twice that of a regular 80-seater plane. Further, a potential investor will not like to run the business on “crutches of subsidies”.

Manpower Shortage Becoming a Bottleneck to Air India’s MRO Growth Plans

In January 2015, Air India hived off its engineering department into a separate unit to tap maintenance, repair and overhaul business from other airlines. It still mainly caters to its own aircraft maintenance but aims to double its third party business to Rs 1300 million in FY 2017.

But today Air India is facing a severe shortage of aircraft engineering personnel. Its plans to grow its MRO business faces a big risk.

As per H R Jagannath, CEO of Air India Engineering Services Limited, Air India’s MRO unit has around 600 aircraft maintenance engineers and faces a shortage of around 100-150 personnel. Recently it hired around 100 of its retired engineers on contract but it was inadequate. Air India will require 250 engineers and the manpower shortage could become a bottleneck to Air India’s growth.

Part of the additional manpower through fresh hiring will be utilised to maintain new aircraft being inducted in Air India’s fleet. A part is also to be utilised to cater to vacancies caused by retirements of over 15-20 employees each month.

Hiring engineers essentially means poaching from another airline and is so proving to be a difficult proposition. It normally takes four years for a fresh aircraft technician to secure a type rating and maintenance engineer’s license. An operator like Air India must also groom aspirants for the job. Air India is now offering on-job training to technicians from other companies, enabling them to apply to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for licence.

“We are seeking support of DGCA and Boeing for the training programme. The government too should support the MRO sector by offering five year tax holiday, ” according to H R Jagannath.

Earlier this year, Air India’s MRO began carrying out ‘C’ check (heavy maintenance check) on Jet Airways Boeing 777 aircraft. It has also signed a MoU with SpiceJet to maintain its Boeing 737 and efforts are underway to secure European Aviation Safety Agency certification for MRO facilities in Nagpur and Thiruvananthapuram.

The MRO unit will also start test and minor repairs of General Electric engines which power Boeing 777 planes at its Nagpur unit later this year and complete overhaul of engines will be carried out from next year. The engine overhaul facility, the first of its kind in India, will significantly boost the MRO business as it can undertake engine repairs of all General Electric engine customers.

Port Blair Set to Get More Air Connectivity with Bengaluru and Hyderabad

Low-cost air carrier GoAir has added Hyderabad as its 23rd destination on its network; services to begin from October 2016. Hyderabad-Bengaluru-Port Blair are now going to be air-connected.

Earlier, India’s leading low cost air carrier, IndiGo, had introduced three new flights connecting Port Blair with Hyderabad, Chennai and Delhi. Port Blair thus became IndiGo’s 41st destination.

As of now, the Mumbai based no-frills airline GoAir flies to 22 domestic airports with a fleet of 21 Airbus A320 including A320neo.

This will provide leisure and business travelers more travel options.

In a press release, GoAir said that it would add Hyderabad in its network with the launch of non-stop flight services between Hyderabad and Chennai, Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, & Kolkata from October 2016.

Tickets for the new flights are already up for sale, the release said, and can be booked through the company website, NC Airways, GoAir Call Centre, airport ticketing offices, and the GoAir mobile app that is available on both Apple iOS and Google Android.

“This latest addition to GoAir network reflects the airline’s phase of growth with a focus on scaling up operations gradually in the coming weeks while strengthening the value proposition to suit customer’s demand. With new additions of aircraft in coming months, GoAir will operate up to 184 daily flights by the end of December from current 144.” the airline said.

In June 2011, GoAir had placed an order with the European airplane maker, Airbus, for 72 new A320 neo aircraft valued at about Rs 3,24,000 million on list price. Thereafter, GoAir signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Airbus for another 72 A320neo aircraft at Farnborough International Airshow in July 2016.

GoAir had last month said that it planned to add five more planes in the fleet by March 2017 besides commencing international operations.

“Hyderabad is a key market in south and central India and a significant base for business and tourism in the region. Adding Hyderabad with its ideal geographical location, we reinforce our commitments towards connectivity across the country,” GoAir Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Prock-Schaeur said in the release.

“We are happy to welcome GoAir to Hyderabad Airport. As one of the fastest growing airports in the country, our focus has been on providing more options to our passengers and with the introduction of services by GoAir, we now offer a wider range of choices in terms of destinations and frequencies. We keenly look forward to working together with GoAir towards our goal of establishing Hyderabad Airport as the gateway to south & central India,” GMR Hyderabad International Airport CEO, S G K Kishore said.